Congo Journal: A Brethren Pastor’s Run/Walk for Peace

Gary Benesh, pastor of Friendship Church of the Brethren in N. Wilkesboro, N.C., was inspired to return to long distance running after he heard Global Mission and Service executive Jay Wittmeyer share the story of the Congo Brethren. “Coming from the most violent area on earth, they were particularly interested in taking seriously Jesus as the Prince of Peace, and the Gospel being a ‘Gospel of Peace’ (Romans 10:15, Ephesians 6:15),” he explained. Benesh set out to “run, walk, or crawl” 28 miles across Wilkes County in the northwestern North Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge escarpment to raise money for the Congo mission and for peace in that region of the eastern Congo. Here is his story:

“The prevalence of childhood malnutrition in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) amounts to 40.7 percent, according to UNICEF. Over 500,000 have fled from the ongoing fighting.” Such is the news of the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo that led me last May to begin planning my run/walk/crawl across Wilkes County.

When I labeled this as the “I’m Not Going to the Congo Mission Fundraiser”  my intent was to send all funds raised to capable people in that area from both the indigenous population and from respected international mission leaders, including those from my own denomination. I do not plan to waste any money to send me to the DRC as I have no skills to offer to meet the tremendous needs of this area. What I call “sandals on the ground” are those of committed Christians who need our support in spreading the Gospel of Peace, compassion, and reconciliation in the name of the Prince of Peace.

Six years out of coaching and having not run during that time, I found myself 25 pounds heavier, fighting high blood pressure, and not able to run a mile nonstop. Over the summer I gradually improved, and by October was up to 10 slow miles at a time. I was carrying 20 pounds less weight, and had blood pressure closer to normal ranges. However, as I added on miles, my 59 years began to show. I started having severe pain in my leg, and was unable to run for two weeks prior to the start date. I knew then that I would not be able to run the full distance, and that the walking phase would increase.

Gary Benesh and his son, Fernando Coronado, pose by a
Gary Benesh and his son, Fernando Coronado, pose by a “Welcome to Wilkes County” sign

We started our journey at 8 a.m. on a cool but beautiful late fall morning. At a 15-minute mile pace we soaked in the beauty of the upper South Fork of the Reddies River: a heron rising from the stream, hundreds of crows seeming to call out encouragement, patches of snow-white frost melting as the rays of the sun came through the leafless trees, a hawk soaring high to remind us that we were in Blackhawk territory, a rooster calling the countryside to come awake, hound dogs coming out to encourage us with their wagging tails. The only other sound was that of the glistening stream as it ran down the escarpment, gradually gaining strength as stream after stream joined in its melodious chorus.

We finished that 12-mile phase in the planned three hours. We would transition to running, and so far I was feeling good. I had told athletes never to do anything to mask any pain, as that is the body’s way of giving warning signals. However, I knew this would be my “last hurrah” at long-distance running, and was willing to run the risk if it would get me to the finish line.

At the 15-mile mark, the pain in my lower calf returned, much sharper than before. If Fernando had not been along, I would have been back at a walk. I managed to continue, and somehow by mile 18, the pain lessened to a tolerable level. By mile 20 it seemed to have subsided.

As we were completing mile 22 near Wilkes Central, we both realized that our running segment would be done at 10 miles. Our legs were like jelly. We would finish the last six miles as we had started, at a quick walk. By mile 24 we were experiencing what a friend calls “rigor mortis setting in.” All feeling from was gone from our legs.

The surprisingly warm November sun, which normally would have felt pleasant, was slightly over-bearing. We were now on the stretch of Highway 16 that passes Price Road and Pores Knob as it winds its way up to Kilby Gap. I knew this stretch quite well as I had run it numerous times over 25 years ago when I was training for the Charlotte Marathon. It had never seemed longer or more demanding than it did on this afternoon.

I managed to again focus on the beauty of nature to get me through: an upper tributary of Moravian Creek as it peacefully rambled down from the surrounding hills, the fading orange of the leaves that remained on the trees, the majesty of Pores Knob itself. At the Walnut Grove Baptist Church we passed the marathon point. We had two miles left, mostly uphill. By now the sun’s warmth was giving way to a pleasant coolness. We had passed the farthest distance that I had ever walked or ran.

The last mile up Kilby Gap seemed anti-climatic. The pain was gone. We were still managing a good walking pace and we were confident that we could finish. Finally, seven hours and twenty minutes after we had started, our 28-mile trek was done.

A fresh apple from Lowes Orchards provided ample reward for our journey–as well as knowing that we had done what we could to stir up attention for an area of the world facing perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. We invite others to join in the cause.

— Gary Benesh introduces himself as a member of Table 69 at Annual Conference. He also is a 7th grade teacher and a former track/cross country coach. His walk/run for the Congo mission already has raised over $1,600. To connect with his Congo Mission Fund, contact Friendship Church of the Brethren, 910 F Street, North Wilkesboro, NC, 28659.






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